Playing With Fire

Food is simply more fun when you can set it on fire. Don’t believe me? Clearly, you need more saganaki in your life.

What Is Saganaki?

Although most people associate the word saganaki with gooey cheese that’s pan fried and served hot, the word itself actually refers to the cast iron pan itself. A wide variety of appetizers, or Greek tapas, if you will, fall under the category. Given the popularity of molten cheese though, 9.5 times out of 10, this is the version most people think of.

Fire isn’t a mandatory or even traditional ingredient. It was first presented with this theatrical flare at the Parthenon Greek Restaurant in Chicago, Illinois. Given the opportunity to set food on fire, however, why would you chose anything else?

How To Make Vegan Saganaki

Vegan saganaki is made just the like classic by simply swapping out the dairy. Of course, there’s no direct non-dairy translation for traditional kasseri cheese, but plenty of respectable substitutes. Plant-based feta is your best bet, since it melts reasonably for that satisfying gooey interior, has a strong flavor that can stand up to the alcohol infusion, and is widely available in most markets. My favorite vegan feta options, in order, are:

  • Violife
  • Trader Joe’s
  • Daiya

The key is to buy only full blocks, not crumbles or cubes, and nothing tofu-based which is impervious to melting. Of course, meltability is both an asset and a flaw for this preparation. Instead of staying firm but gooey, like a runny brie at room temperature, vegan feta tends to lose all structure and form, liquefying into a rich, creamy dip with a glorious toasty surface. Plant-based saganaki is possibly an improvement over the original, because this version has further applications, such as:

  • Pasta sauce
  • Pizza topping
  • Spanikopita filling

What To Serve With Saganaki

Flaming cheese alone doesn’t make a meal, but it can become a central facet of a well-curated array of savory bites. Whether this is the prelude to a full entree or the main event itself is all in the portions. Classic accompaniments and serving suggestions include:

  • Crusty bread, toast, or crackers
  • Pita wedges, grilled or warmed
  • Olives
  • Dolma (stuffed grape leaves)
  • Hummus
  • Mediterranean or shirazi salad
  • Raw crudites, like sliced cucumbers, carrots, or celery
  • Roasted or grilled vegetables, like red bell peppers, zucchini, or eggplant

Tips For Success

  1. Any high-proof spirit will work in this recipe. Try ouzo to keep it Greek, or use vodka for a more neutral flavor.
  2. Safety first! Turn off stove and remove the pan before adding alcohol. Use a long lighter to ignite the cheese, or light the end of a piece of dried linguine or spaghetti first to act as a conduit.
  3. To make this recipe gluten-free, use your favorite gluten-free flour blend instead of all-purpose.
  4. Make a smaller batch by cutting your feta in half or even quarters, and adjusting the remaining ingredients accordingly. It’s more about the technique than exact measurements.Like moths, we’re all inexorably drawn to the flames. When you want to start an event with a bang, impress someone special, or just play with fire, this will be your new favorite party trick.

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Happy As A Vegan Clam

New Year’s Eve is the single most superstitious day of the year.

Even if you’re typically a logical, pragmatic person, it’s hard to resist placing some significance on the visible acceleration of time. When faced with a full 365 days of unknown fortune ahead, wouldn’t you want to stack the deck in your favor, just in case? Don’t just raise a glass to good luck; make it a guest at the party by inviting these Plant-Based Baked Clams to join the fun.

Vegan Baked Clams

What’s The Significance of Clams?

Slang for dollars, round like coins, and known to produce lucrative pearls, clams are strongly associated with property across all cultures. In fact, the indigenous peoples of the Americas used the shells themselves directly as a form of currency. Beyond symbolism, this was literal money harvested from the sea.

That said, you can enhance your luck while preserving your karma by cooking up plants, not bivalves.

Ingredients for Vegan Baked Clams

How Can You Make Vegan Baked Clams?

The key ingredient is soaked Sugimoto shiitake mushrooms. Rich with natural umami, chopped to approximate the toothsome, chewy texture of diced seafood, it’s a wholly unique creation that no other plant or animal can replace. Koshin shiitake are ideal for their wide, flat caps, but Donko shiitake would also be welcome for a meatier, heartier bite.

Finely minced shallots and garlic are sauteed in peppery extra-virgin olive oil to infuse their savory aroma into the entire kitchen. Caper brine adds a distinctive oceanic salinity, accentuated by the gentle acidity of fresh citrus. Cheesy, buttery nutritional yeast brings everything together with light panko breadcrumbs for binding, toasting to a nutty and crunchy finish.

Vegan Baked Clams

What Are Variations On Baked Clams?

Consider this formula the classic rendition, simple and elegant, that goes with every occasion. If you want more pizazz and flair, you have plenty of room for creative adaption:

  • Clams Casino: Swap the olive oil for melted vegan butter and add 1/4 cup meatless bacon bits.
  • Dynamite Clams: Stir in 2 – 3 teaspoons sriracha and 2 tablespoons vegan mayonnaise right before baking.
  • Sweet & Salty Clams: Swap the breadcrumbs for crushed pretzels and add 1 tablespoon vegan honey or maple syrup.
  • Clams Rosa: Swap the white wine for red and add 2 tablespoons tomato paste. Optionally, add minced fresh basil.

Vegan Baked Clams

Tips For Success

The best party has food for everyone. That means catering to a diverse range of dietary restrictions, but it’s easy to accommodate with some simple modifications:

  • To make this recipe gluten-free, use gluten-free breadcrumbs or coarse almond meal.
  • To make this recipe without alcohol, use more mushroom soaking liquid instead of white wine.
  • To make this recipe oil-free, use more mushroom soaking liquid instead of olive oil. You may need more than the 1/4 cup listed; watch it carefully and make sure it doesn’t dry out.

Don’t take your chances with other hors d’oeuvres. Shiitake baked clams are bougie on a budget, which means you’re already well on your way to greater fortunes ahead.

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A Time and A Place For Everything

Gifting holidays can be tough, placing the burden squarely on the giver. Some people can be picky, tough to shop for, or claim to not want or need presents. What can you get for the person with everything? Well, how about more of everything!

Everything cheese straws take the irresistible savory seasoning synonymous with the very best bagels and wraps it up in cream cheese-slathered puff pastry. These buttery, flaky, and crispy morsels come together in an instant with just four essential ingredients, making them perfect for parties, last-minute guests, and effortless gifts.

What can you serve Everything Cheese Straws with?

I’m not trying to make yet another cute pun, but these savory morsels really do pair beautifully with just about everything! Think of them as bread sticks to enjoy alongside any meal, stand-alone snacks or appetizers, or coupled with a few of my favorites:

You don’t need to be a skilled baker to pull off a Christmas miracle here. Just give it everything you’ve got, and that’s the best gift of all.

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How to Build a Vegan Cheese Board

For any gathering big or small, a well-appointed cheeseboard has always seemed like the height of sophistication. Arranged just so over a distressed wood plank, discrete piles of sweet and savory morsels sparkle like jewels in a treasure chest, waiting to be plundered. Carefully curated selections manage to dance in step no matter the pairing, as if they were all destined for this stage. How is it possible to create such a winning cheeseboard at home, with little experience, limited budget, or particular tastes?

If you’ve ever enjoyed cheese and crackers together, believe it or not, you’re already an expert. Putting together a selection of snacks for grazing isn’t rocket science. Start small and keep building as the occasion demands, breaking it down into five distinct categories for easy execution.

1 – 3 Types of Vegan Cheese

This is the star of the show here so don’t hold back. Plan on at least 1 – 2 ounces per person as an appetizer or snack. For a small party, it’s perfectly fine to focus on just one superlative cheese, but it’s always nice to offer different options to compare and contrast. Think of them in three categories while shopping or cooking:

Something Sweet

Personally, I wouldn’t go with desserts like cookies or truffles, but a more moderate, natural source of sweetness. The idea is to help balance the savory notes of the cheeses, rather than overpower them. That means relying on nature’s candy with no added sugars:

  • Fresh fruit (grapes, sliced apples or pears, berries)
  • Dried fruit (apricots, dates, figs)
  • Jam or preserves

Something Salty

There’s a lot of potential overlap in this category with the following, so you can pick one or the other for a smaller spread. For concentrated pops of salty contrast, I’d suggest at least one of these:

  • Pickles
  • Marinated artichokes
  • Olives
  • Capers

Something Crunchy

Texture is critical! It’s especially important to have something crispy when you have a soft, spreadable cheese on deck. There should be a vehicle for any schmear, and maybe even a crunchy topper to finish it off:

Something Neutral

There’s a whole lot going on with the rest of the board, so it’s nice to provide some blank space as a palate cleanser. These are also great options for those that really want to put the cheese first, but not just shove a whole plain wedge of it in their mouths. Use these as fillers when you have blank space:

  • Soft bread
  • Carrot or celery sticks
  • Cucumber slices

BONUS: Charcuterie

If this was a genuine charcuterie board, you’d want to go heavy on the sliced plant-based meats. That, however, is a whole separate topic in and of itself. Consider it a wildcard addition if you want some extra protein to make it more of a meal.

Don’t Forget…!

There’s plenty of overlap that exists and you shouldn’t let these simplified lists restrict your creativity! Consider candied nuts for a sweet, salty, and crunchy component, for example, or a spicy pepper jam that’s more hot than sweet.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with paring it down to the bare essentials; all you need is a really great cheese and hearty crackers to start a party on the right foot. Perfect for the holidays or everyday entertaining, a plant-based cheeseboard offers a little bit of something for everyone.

GuacTober

Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, though my appreciation for it has changed substantially over the years. Long gone are the nights spent trick-or-treating, seeking the thrill of the hunt as much as the sugar high to follow. Off-the-shelf costumes are permanently off the shopping list, since I refuse to dress as the “sexy” version of literally anything. Now, I’m content to enjoy the spooky season in a similar way to other special events: By playing with my food.

Whether you’re throwing a Halloween party for one or one hundred, solid snacks are an absolute must. Balancing out the abundance of candy and booze alike, reasonably healthy and savory options are essential for a killer bash. For that, I turn to classic guacamole, but with a ghoulish twist.

Pick your favorite recipe and get crafty! Here are four different ways to dress up the same old green goop as a fun, festive party starter.

Sick Dip

I’m sure everyone’s familiar with the classic barfing jack-o-lantern motif by now, but what if we could make that into an edible centerpiece? Allow me to present sick dip, replacing the pumpkin with a carved bell pepper.

  1. Cut around the top in a jagged pattern just like you would for a traditional jack-o-lantern. Pull off the top and remove the seeds and membrane inside.
  2. Use a paring knife to carefully carve out eyes and a large opening for the mouth.
  3. Place the pepper on a serving plate and fill it with your guacamole, pushing some out the mouth hole.
  4. Fill the rest of the plate with more guacamole and place the top back onto the pepper.
  5. Serve with the paring knife sticking out of the pepper for guests to slice off their own crudites.

Guacamole Graveyard

Parting is such savory sorrow when the final resting place is this delicious. You could pipe “RIP” onto the tombstones with smooth guaca-mole, but I prefer to keep it simple and classy.

  1. Spread your guacamole into a rectangular dish an in even layer.
  2. Stick crackers in, spaced at regular intervals, in two or three rows.
  3. Spoon a mound of minced black olives or tapenade in front of each cracker tombstone to make the burial plots.
  4. Serve with more crackers on the side.

Monster Mash

Kids will especially love this silly Frankenstein face! You may even be able to convince them to eat their veggies this way. You can even blend fresh spinach into the guacamole to make it more green and add an extra superfood boost.

  1. Spread your guacamole in a circle on a round plate, leaving a larger border at the top.
  2. Stick crackers or cut vegetable crudites into the top part for the hair.
  3. Cut a black olive in half and add them to the middle as eyes.
  4. Cut a jagged smile out of a bell pepper or carrot slice for the mouth.

Wicked Web

When all else fails, weave a simple spiderweb that’s guaranteed to catch guests’ attention.

  1. Spread your guacamole into a round dish in an even layer.
  2. Drizzle plain, unsweetened vegan yogurt, ranch dressing, or sour cream in a spiral pattern, starting in the center and radiating out.
  3. Use a toothpick to drag the loops alternating inward and outward from the center.
  4. For the spider, place one whole olive near the middle of the web. Cut another olive in half lengthwise, and then slice four little legs from each piece. Arrange them next to the side body.
  5. Enjoy with any of your favorite dippers.

Get into the Halloween spirit and whip up a ghastly appetizer that will haunt your friends and family all season! What’s your favorite diabolical dish?

65 Reasons to Love Mushroom 65

All good recipes start with a story. This one is downright legendary, awash in myths and theories, becoming just a little bit more embellished with each retelling. Chicken 65 has enough allure without the fanfare, sticky red glaze gleaming as it catches the light, hugging the curves of each crispy morsel. Knowing where the name came from has zero impact on the dish which clearly speaks for itself, and yet it’s an obvious question that demands answers: Why 65?

Why is it called Chicken 65?

Was the chicken marinated for 65 days? Did the original dish include 65 pieces? Were there 65 chilies that went into that blisteringly spicy sauce? Maybe it was simply the item #65 on the menu for easy ordering? At this point, one could say it’s from the 65 different ways that people thought it came about!

Chicken 65 isn’t nearly as mysterious as the name might suggest. In fact, it’s well documented that it was invented by chefs at Buhari Hotel in 1965. Thus, the ’65 is merely paying homage to its date of birth. In case that very reasonable explanation disappoints you, don’t worry; this story is just getting started.

Hot enough to make you sweat on a brisk winter’s day, I’d equate it to the Indian version of Buffalo chicken. Though it packs a punch, the vivid red color imparts a more daunting appearance than punishing taste.

Given its great popularity over the years, chicken hasn’t been the only subject for this treatment. You can easily find shrimp 65, fish 65, mutton 65, paneer (cheese) 65, and gobi (cauliflower) 65 all across India. The next evolutionary step was obvious to me.

Why not try Mushroom 65?

The same treatment has been given to humble button mushrooms many times already, but I’d like to up the ante with shiitake. Far richer in umami flavor, denser for a firm, meaty bite, and without the bland watery texture of the average fungi, Sugimoto Shiitake, and particularly donko shiitake, are really the only ones up to the task. They straddle the line between the realms of plants and vegetables, giving the impression of a meaty morsel in a more earthy way. Besides, when everything can generally be said to “taste like chicken,” why bother the living birds in the first place?

Plunged into a heady marinade of vibrant spices immersed in a creamy yogurt base, the hydrated shiitake truly blossom to release their full umami potency. Absorbing that brilliant blend right into their core, each bite practically glows crimson after that luxurious bath. Still, there’s more flavor on the way to reinforce that solid foundation.

Lightly battered, fried to a crispy finish, and then tossed in even more tempered whole spices, the aromas are so heady that you can start to taste it before it even hits your tongue. One unique addition here is fresh curry leaves, which are sadly obscure in the US. Yes, there is in fact a curry plant, not just a mixture of spices or a dish called curry. It has an irreplaceable nuance that adds nutty, toasted notes with a hint of citrus, a hint of herbal yet floral flavor like Thai basil, with a tangy, tart finish. My best suggestion for a widely available alternative would be fresh bay leaves, but nothing can truly replace such a singular sensation.

If you like it hot, you’ll LOVE Mushroom 65. The key is starting with quality ingredients, as with any other carefully calibrated formula. Some can be adjusted, in the case of curry leaves, and heat can be dialed back for those with more meek palates, but one this is a non-negotiable: Sugimoto Shiitake are the only mushrooms for the job. One bite, and you’ll understand why.

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